Two of my greatest passions in life are creative writing and Christian faith, and I’ve been wondering what it means that I approach them in very different ways with respect to the role of the theoretical intellect. In fact, the first sentence of this post was originally “…creative writing and theology,” which I changed to “…and Christianity,” and finally to a more active and experiential phrase that is more of a goal than an honest description of my spiritual life. As a writer, I flee from literary theory like a helicopter escaping a war zone. As a Christian, I spend much of my time insisting on the importance of clear thinking about theology, and trying to provide a foundation for the same.
Does this discrepancy reflect a natural difference in subject matter, or is it a sign that my religious life doesn’t go deep enough, compared to my enjoyment of my own imagination? Is this related to the fact that I talk to my novel characters when I should be praying? Sometimes I feel like I’ll never be done hunting for idolatry in the corners of my mind, hidden under things that always seemed admirable before. It’s like my bedroom ceiling during ladybug mating season. Eventually I have to put down the Bugzooka (the Buddhist answer to flyswatters) and go to sleep, knowing that I may be sharing a pillow with a few spotty little friends.
So, some thoughts. What they add up to, I hope my loyal readers will tell me.
Theory & writing: I get so discouraged when poets launch into jeremiads against literary movements that differ from their own preferred style. The world will not end because someone is writing free verse or using less than 17 syllables in a haiku. Poets whose writing explores problems at the boundaries of language despise poets whose work could be understood if you read it aloud on the bus, and vice versa. Poetry may be at special risk for this phenomenon because it’s already more meta-textual than fiction, more concerned with its own workings; also because the crumbs of academic security and public acclaim are so much smaller that the pigeons squabble over them more fiercely. Intolerance is never pretty, but the “One True Religion” attitude seems particularly absurd in creative writing, which is by definition personal, original and idiosyncratic.
I write to find out things I don’t already know that I know. Anne Lamott’s excellent book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life compares writing a novel to taking dictation from the little boy who’s playing in the basement of your subconscious. At least for the first drafts, you just listen in while he’s doing his thing; you don’t give him an outline of the themes his make-believe is supposed to embody. Theory would get in the way. By the same token, I’ve come to believe that I shouldn’t set out to write an “innovative” or “experimental” poem. Innovation, if it happens at all, arises naturally out of the need for a new form to express a new thought, and often isn’t crowned as a breakthrough till years later.
I love Bird by Bird mainly because it validates the novel-writing process I’ve discovered for myself as the most comfortable and productive one: namely, having absolutely no idea what I’m doing, but complete confidence in it anyhow. Other books by equally good writers would give the opposite advice. I don’t care. All I need to know is that someone did it my way and didn’t die. I have no need to insist that all writers go through my particular dharma door.
Theory & faith: In my religious life, what came first was my childhood sense of wonder and my passionate longing for something that lay just beyond the horizon of human perception. In that respect, it’s not unlike the leap of faith I take as a writer. The ineffable draws me onward. Only the desire implanted unshakeably in my heart tells me that my journey will lead somewhere worthwhile. The absence meanwhile is a bittersweet pleasure, a spur to forward motion, a space in which to embrace my role as lover and seeker.
One of the beauties in which I see God’s presence is the beauty of theology. Long before I found Christianity convincing, I fell in love with its harmonious intricacy, its ability to address life’s most important questions within a system that was satisfyingly complex yet coherent. Perhaps I don’t see the same beauty in a lot of literary theory because the latter is about second-order questions. Theology is not God, and isn’t always prayer, but it goes right up to the limits of the sayable. It knows where the action is. Literary theory is words about words, theology is words about Reality.
There’s also an anti-intellectualism in today’s religious climate that’s mercifully absent from how we think and talk about literature. Few people expect to become good writers without studying the thoughts and methods of one’s predecessors, and learning how to think critically about one’s preconceived notions. If the same level of intellectual seriousness was expected in our religious life, I wouldn’t need to spend so much time defending the very idea of the Nicene Creed, not to mention its content.
Writers are expected to master their shame and fear in order to learn from tradition. Though the diversity of acceptable techniques increases at the more advanced levels of the craft, there’s wide agreement on some basic standards that quality writing should follow. There are respected authorities in the field. A beginning writer who rejects the notion of authority, who feels invalidated by the suggestion that anybody has something to teach her, would be advised to get her ego under control.
The church, by contrast, too often coddles that kind of immature personality, either from a loss of belief that there are any standards for Christian faith, or from fear that doctrinal specificity will lead to fatal dissension. The stakes are higher, it’s true. The Thirty Years’ War wasn’t waged by rival MFA programs. Still, I think the liberal churches in particular could learn something from the self-discipline and detachment that their members expect from themselves when they’re wearing their “academic” hat instead of their “Christian” hat.
I care more about unity in theology than in literary theory because for me, religion is about describing our shared reality, while writing creates a multiplicity of alternate realities that reflect different small pieces of the human condition. Also, the church as community needs something loftier than the roof-repair fundraiser to unite around, while the writer’s work is solitary.
At a time when fewer and fewer Christians can articulate why the Trinity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection make a difference in how God’s forgiving love transforms our lives, it’s hard for me to get past the task of rebuilding an intellectual foundation for belief. I need this foundation to create the community that will safely support me on my scary walk toward God.
Imagine being a writer in a society where good books and bad ones were given equal and superficial respect, and reading too much of either type was suspect; where English teachers and literary critics were routinely mocked, in pop culture and within schools themselves, as crushing the natural beauty of creative souls with their arbitrary rules of grammar and exposition. Writers shouldn’t have to be that lonely; Christians, even less so.